|Entry into the world, Paints Miniatures,
Leaves for England, Exhibits at the Royal Academy, Gives up painting.
In 1782 when seventeen years of age, Fulton left his native town for Philadelphia, there to seek his fortune. That city was the capital of the State of Pennsylvania, which, under the mild and beneficent rule of members of the Society of Friends, enjoyed the distinction of being the pioneer in the arts of peace among the States of the Union. Hither came men of science and scholarship, finding the atmosphere congenial to work and study. In Philadelphia were founded the first American Philosophical Society, the first public library in America, the first medical and law schools; the first printing press in the middle colonies was set up there, and prior to the Revolution more books were published in Pennsylvania than in all the other colonies combined. It is not surprising that Fulton should develop quickly in the new field of thought and activity which opened before him. Not much is known of his doings during the first three years of his stay in the Quaker City. It is said that he was apprenticed to a silversmith, but he would be too old for that; another statement which is much more probable is that he was glad to turn his hand to almost any kind of work in drawing plans, designing buildings, and painting portraits. Already in In 1852 by his application and industry, he had established himself as a miniature painter, and during the next two years he met with a considerable measure of success. Several miniatures and one or two portraits of some merit remain to this day to prove his proficiency. Charles Willson Peale was then the principal painter in the city, and Fulton may have had lessons from him. Fulton was a personable youth of agreeable manners, and appears to have embraced the opportunities for social intercourse that the city of Philadelphia afforded. Among the number of those whose acquaintance he made was Benjamin Franklin, who not only allowed him to paint his (Franklin's) portrait but also gave him introductions to people of consequence from whom he received commissions. Franklin himself as a young man had gone to England to improve himself in his trade of printer, and, having greatly benefited from his stay there, was ready to encourage others to go and do likewise. Besides his example, there was that of Benjamin West, who had now attained to an eminent position among English painters. Small wonder then that Fulton should be fired by a similar ambition, and cherish the thought of visiting the Old World. Having this object in view he had an incentive to save something from his earnings; but, like a dutiful son, as a first charge on his savings he made provision for his mother by buying a farm for her in the township of Hopewell, Washington County, Pa., for the sum of z80. The choice of locality seems to have been determined by the fact that his maternal uncle, the Rev. Joseph Smith, had acquired land and was in charge of the Presbyterian congregation there. The deed, dated the 6th day of May 1786, is too long to reproduce in full, but the more interesting points in it can be briefly summarised. The parties to the deed are " Thomas Pollock and Margaret his wife " of the one part and " Robert Fulton, miniature painter, of the city of Philadelphia and State aforesaid, Yeoman," of the other part. The estate the area of which is given as 840 acres is described as "a certain parcel of land on the waters of Cross Creek, it being part of a tract of land granted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania the 12th day of December A.D. 1785 to the Reverend Joseph Smith his heirs and assigns called Wiliome." It would therefore seem as if the reverend gentleman had sold part of his original grant to the Pollocks. Fulton's purchase brought it back, as it were, into the family. At Hopewell Fulton's mother spent her declining years till her death in 1799, watched over by her widowed daughter Elizabeth. The latter continued to reside there with her children, and was eventually confirmed in the ownership of the estate by her brother's will.l Fulton also, on September 18, 1786, bought from John, Elizabeth, and William Hoge,2 four building lots in the neighbouring town of Washington, Pa., just then being laid out; he made the purchase, doubtless, with the idea of giving one lot to each of his sisters and one to his brother. About the time of the purchase mentioned above, Fulton had a serious attack of inflammation of the lungs, accompanied by spitting of blood, which must have warned him that he was not robust physically. He went to the warm springs of Virginia to recuperate, and incidentally made new acquaintances. It appears that it was during his stay there that his decision to make the journey to Europe was finally arrived at. At length his preparations were made, and Fulton, shortly after he had attained to man's estate, sailed for England, buoyant and hopeful. It must have been at the end of the year 1786 or the beginning of 1787 that he arrived in the mother country. He had but forty guineas in his pocket not a large sum truly to start life with, but lack of money has never been an obstacle to a young man with energy and enthusiasm. He was not friendless exactly, for he had brought with him a letter of introduction from Franklin to West. When he arrived in London and presented this letter, he met, as might have been expected, with a warm welcome; the Wests were noted for their hospitality to their fellow-countrymen, and in this case there was between them the additional bond of relationship. We can hardly doubt that they invited Fulton to stay with them till he found lodgings. West recommended him to rooms at Mr. Robert Davy's, 84 Charlotte Street, Rathbone Place, just vacated by William Dunlap. Probably Fulton went there, but he could not have afforded to stay long, as the terms were a guinea a week.l He did not, as has been often stated, reside with the Wests during his art student days. This is proved incidentally in a letter to his mother quoted below, wherein he says of West and himself, " we live near each other." It is almost certain that Fulton, like Gilbert Stuart before him, was working under West's direct supervision. Merely to have been allowed to frequent his studio must have been an inspiration for any young man, apart from his art studies, for West was already very high in his profession and was visited by the most famous people of the day. What Fulton's impression on his entry into this new world must have been may be imagined from the description given by one 2 who had preceded him by a few years: " The impression made upon an American youth of eighteen by the long gallery leading from the dwellinghouse to the lofty suite of painting rooms a gallery filled with sketches and designs for large paintings the spacious room through which I passed to the more retired attelier the works of his pencil surrounding me on every side his own figure seated at his esel, and the beautiful composition at which he was employed, as if in sport, not labour; all are recalled to my mind's eye at this distance of half a century, with a vividness which doubtless proceeds in part from the repeated visits to, and examination of, many of the same objects during a residence of more than three years in London." A period of close attention to art now ensued so close that it is uneventful. The only serious problem that Fulton had to face during this time was how to secure the wherewithal to pursue his studies. Many an anxious hour did he spend pondering over ways and means; how he did manage to support himself we can only guess, but although often on the brink of want he never actually lacked a meal. This Bohemian life, although not altogether to his liking, broadened his sympathies and increased his knowledge of the world. No doubt poverty also inculcated self-restraint, but it should be put down principally to his early training and moral character that, placed at a critical age amid the temptations of the metropolis, he did not yield to the attractions of profligacy and vice. It must have been a great comfort to Mrs. Fulton to have received such a reassuring letter as the one that has been preserved, dated July 25, 1782 from a friend named George Sanderson, who had just returned to America. He commends Fulton's progress "in the liberal Art of Painting" and also mentions the influential friends that his personal accomplishments and prudent behaviour " had won for him. Those were the days when letters were few and far between, on account of the prohibitive cost of postage and the lack of postal facilities, so that people used to take advantage of the occasions when friends or acquaintances were travelling in order to get their correspondence forwarded. Some of the affectionate and dutiful letters that reached Mrs. Fulton by such roundabout channels have been preserved and make continual references to the difficulties in the way of letter-writing. In one letter,' dated July 3I, 1789, Fulton asks his mother "to write small and close that you may say a great deal in small cumpas for the ships often put the letters ashore at the first port they make. They then come post to London And I have often paid half a guinea for a small package of letters the better to accomplish this you better buy letter paper as it is thin for we pay according to the weight and not the size so if you can send me a pound of news upon an ounce of paper I shall save almost a guinea by it." Fulton also remarks, "I am frequently Changing my Lodgings to suit my Convenience": indicative no doubt of his Bohemian existence during his stay in London. The Royal Academy records show that he lodged at 67 Margaret Street, Cavendish Square, in 1791, and at 18 Newman Street in 1793. Another letter 2 of earlier date tells of his prospects, and makes mention of the way he intends sending correspondence. It is as follows: DEAR MOTHER, It being so short a time since I wrote my last letter to you this will consist of very little more than an account of my very perfect state of health And good prospect of succeeding in my profession. My pictures have been admitted this year into the Royal Academy And I hope in time to be a proficient in the Art. Painting Requires more studdy than I at first imagened in Consequence of which I shall be obliged to Stay here some time longer than I Expected But all things work together for good in the end and I am Convinced my exertions will have a good tendency. In your next letter please to give me a very particular account of everything you know particularly how you like the little farm if you have a good garden And what kind of Neighbours you have got. And in fact I should like to know every thing that will give you pleasure or promote the happiness of the family There is nothing Interupts my happiness here but the desire of seeing my Relations but time will bring us together. And I hope at my return to see you all happy as the day is long. I hope Mr. Smith is well Please to present him my kind Love Allso to Polly, Abraham, Bell, Cook and Children The gentleman who carries this letter and many others of mine to Baltimore is not a very particular friend therefore I cannot trouble to take a large Package in this case Polly, Abraham and Bell must excuse my not writing to them by this opportunity What letters I do send will be delivered to George Sanderson Baltimore he sends them to Turbitt and so on to you Please to give my Compliments to Mr. and Mrs. Hoge and friends in general] and believe me to be with the most Sincere regard for my Relations a loving Brother and Affectionate Son, ROBERT FULTON. We are unable to reconcile Fulton's statement that pictures of his were admitted into the Exhibition of the Royal Academy of 1789, with the fact that he does not appear as an exhibitor there till 1791; possibly up till then his paintings had been rejected. The pictures that he exhibited in the latter year were two "portraits of young gentlemen": lest it might be thought that he owed the distinction not to his own merits but to his having a friend at court in the person of Benjamin West, who was a Royal Academician, we hasten to add that Fulton also had four other pictures in the Exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists in the same year. Although Fulton in a subsequent letter says that "these exertions are all for honour," it is difftcult to believe that the portraits, at least, were not commissions for which he received payment. At any rate, the fact that he had been " 1lung,'' or, more likely perhaps, the recommendation of West, induced Viscount Courtenayl to commission a portrait of himself from Fulton, and for this purpose the latter left London in June for Powderham Castle, Lord Courtenay's seat near Exeter, where he was for the time being the guest of the steward of the estate. His stay in London had been broken only by a three months' visit to France in 1790, of which we have no details, so that this trip to Devonshire must have been very welcome, especially as the part of the county that he was visiting was noted even then for its salubrity. Lord Courtenay was so pleased with his portrait that he introduced Fulton to all his friends, who gave him commissions which enabled him to pay off some debts he had contracted and lay by a little money for the future. The details of Fulton's life during this period are gleaned largely from a letter which he wrote to his mother from Devonshire on January 20, 1792. As it is so important, we give it in full MY DEAR MOTHER, This Morning I Recd a package of letters from Philadelphia among which were one from you one from Abraham and two from Mr. Morris one of which was for Mr. West. In Consequence of my leaving London on June last for to do some business for Lord Courtney In Devonshire which is about 200 Miles from London The letters by some accident have not reached me till now. As you rely on it I should have answered them by the first Conveyance But I Recd them with Infinite Pleasure as they come from you and Informed me of your good health. And now I will attend to the particulars As I am well convinced every Incidant Relative to my life will Communicate pleasure to you. You express much desire to know how my pictures were Recd at the Royal Academy this I believe I answered before but posibly the letter has miscarryed you will be pleased to hear that I sent eight pictures which Recd every posable mark of Approbation that the Society could give but these exertions are all for honor there is no prophet arising from it. It only tends to Create a name that may hereafter produce business My little tour through France proved very agreeable and was of some service to me as a painter in as much as I saw the works of some of the most able masters in the art which much improved my eye and taste. Mr. West and me are on a very familiar footing and when he is in town pays me much attention which is extremely agreeable as we live near each other. This evening I forwarded Mr. Morris's letter to him which I have no doubt he will be very happy to receive And I shall call on him immediately on my going to London which I Suppose will be in about six months. When I wrote you last I beged you would Settel everything to You(r) mind relative to the Lotts and after Regulating everything with Mr. Hoge and putting me on the way how to act I would transfer my Right in the manner you Can best Settel among yourselves tho I could wish one of them were sold to pay pollock For I Realy feel my honor Concerned in keeping the poor man so long out of his money nor had I the least idea of its remaining so long unpaid or I should have endeavored by some means to have it done but I hope when I hear from you next in Answer to these letters you will have everything so Situated so as I may transfer them to your wish And if no other method can be found one lott ought to be sold to pay pol'k It gives me much Pleasure to hear of Abrahams attention to you tho I am sorry he has run away with the Idea of my Getting Rich I only wish it was true but I Cannot Concieve from whence the Report arose And I must now Give Some little history of my life since I Came to London. I Brought not more than 4o Guineas to England and was set down in a strange Country without a friend and only one letter of Introduction to Mr. West here I had an art to learn by which I was to earn my bread but little to support whilst I was doing it And numbers of Eminant Men of the same profession which I must Excell before I Could hope to live Many Many a Silant solitary hour have I spent in the most unnerved Studdy Anxiously pondering how to make funds to support me till the fruits of my labours should sifficant to repay them. Thus I went on for near four years happily beloved by all who knew me or I had long ear now been Crushed by Poverties Cold wind and Freezing Rain till last Summer I was Invited by Lord Courtney down to his Country seat to paint a picture of him which gave his Lordship so much pleasure that he has introduced me to all his Friends And it is but just now that I am beginning to get a little money and pay some debtt which I was obliged to Contract so I hope in about 6 months to be clear with the world or in other words out of debt and then start fair to Make all I Can. You see dear mother this is very different from being Rich (?) not that I can say I ever was in absolute want heaven has been kind to me and I am thankfull hoping now to go on Smooth and happy as the absance from my friends will admit of. My Poor Sister bell I hope she and her little family will be happy I hope she will not think I forgot her because I dont write her She may believe me she Occupies much of my thoughts And I wish much to know why Poyton left the situation of the saw mill but none of you have informed me. I am happy to hear that all relations are well I shall write to them seprately. I enjoy excelant health which I hope will Continue till I may have the happiness of seeing you. Please to remember me kindly to Mr. Smith and all friends And may Heaven Continue its blessings towards you is the most unfeigned wish of your Obedient Son ROBERT FULTON The "Lotts" referred to in this letter were the building lots in Washington township, whose purchase has already been mentioned. Fulton thought that the time had now arrived to transfer them into the names of his sisters, who had married in the meantime: Elizabeth to one Scott, Isabella to one Cook, and Mary to David Morris, the nephew of Benjamin West. There are references to these transfers in several letters, and it appears as if some difficulties occurred in the process. The "pollock" who is mentioned was the one from whom Fulton had purchased the Hopewell Farm. One would almost have thought that Fulton's brother, Abraham, would by this time have done something towards paying off the debt on his mother's farm, but there is a hint that instead he was content to build on the hope that Robert would become rich. Preoccupation with commissions in the West Country, lasting till about the middle of 1792 did not give Fulton much opportunity to exhibit in London, so that his absence from the Royal Academy in that year is explained. Several historical paintings,l known to us only through engravings published early in 1793, may have been part of the fruits of his labours during this period. At any rate, he did get back to town in time to send to the Academy Exhibition of 1793 a portrait of a Mrs. Murray. Fulton was in good spirits and apparently still engrossed in his work, when he wrote to his brother-in-law a "business" letter, dated London, May 21 1793; it contained a eulogy on Benjamin West which is worth quoting : "Your Uncle West is now at the head of his proffession and Presides at the Royal Academy over all the Painters in England But he is a Great Genius and merits all the honour he has obtained he has stedily persued his Course and Step by Step at length Reached the Summit where he now looks Round on the Beauties of his Industry an Ornament to Society and Stimulis to young Men." It is obvious that Fulton was now fairly launched on an artistic career. At a time when wealth had increased, but no more rapid means of portraiture than the artist's personal touch was known, there was plenty of scope in this branch of art, at least, and miniature painting then reached its highest development. Fulton seems to have done a fair share of portrait painting, but no miniatures of this period, if any were painted by him as would seem likely, are known to exist. As Fulton now threw up his artistic career suddenly, it may not be out of place to say a few words as to his technique and attainments as an artist. On these points we cannot do better than quote the opinion of an eminent art critic,l based on what little material is available at the present day. Speaking of Fulton's miniatures, he says: "Apart from a curious flatness that he gave his miniatures, which can be recognised even in the reproductions, they are good, yes, remarkably good, for so young a man with so little instruction. They are well drawn, good in design, delicately coloured, as miniatures should be, and well executed technically. From some of the qualities that they possess, I should not be surprised if he had had some instruction or help from Charles Willson Peale, who, at Fulton's time, was at the top of the profession here." This is quite probable, as they were well acquainted with one another. As regards his larger paintings, judging by the few authoritative pictures remaining, the same critic says: "Fulton's work showed strong characterisation and breadth, a firm brush and good colour sense. He had not yet developed a style of his own, and while he gave some promise, it is doubtful whether he would ever have equalled Benjamin West: decidedly he would not have attained to the stature of John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull, to mention only those who were his contemporaries and compatriots." It is not easy to give a plausible explanation of why Fulton gave up his career as an artist. He may have admitted to himself reluctantly that he did not possess talent of that high order which was necessary then, as now, to bring a man into the front rank of artists; it is more probable that he was dissatisfied with the pecuniary results so far achieved, which, for a man who had turned thirty, were somewhat meagre. To leave at that age the profession of art to begin that of engineering, then only in its infancy, although such a change was not so difficult then as it would be now, must have appeared to his friends to be the height of rashness. It is unnecessary to enlarge upon the close association that exists between these two professions when we reflect that each involves both the imaginative and constructive faculties. In rare cases these faculties have been united in one person Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the best known instance. In modern times, specialisation has rendered such a union impossible, but many engineers have had the artistic feeling highly developed; we may instance the cases of Fulton's own countryman Samuel F. B. Morse, the electrician, and in this country of James Nasmyth, the inventor of the steam hammer, himself the son and brother of eminent artists. Fulton's was a like case; in him the artist and the engineer struggled for expression, but the latter was undoubtedly the stronger. H is early training was by no means wasted, however, for his skill and rapidity in putting ideas on paper were of the utmost value to him. When, in subsequent years, Fulton had occasion to turn his attention to painting, whether for profit or recreation, he found to his delight that his hand had not lost its cunning indeed he was wont to say that his technique was superior to what it had been in his younger days.
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